At the end of the month, when her disability check comes, Amy buys a single, long-stemmed red rose. It costs $2.93. It’s very precious to her, a luxury purchase, because after her rent and utilities are paid, she has $84 dollars left to live on for the next 30 days. Out of that $84 a month has to come food, clothes, shampoo, haircuts, shoe laces, stamps, toilet paper, everything. She calculated it once: $84 a month multiplied by 12 months, divided by 365 days. That leaves her with a grand total of $2.76 a day to survive on, in 2003 with a terrible chronic illness.
She carries the rose home under her coat, to protect it from the cold. She smells it, studies its deep color, feels the sharpness of its thorns. She nurtures it like a child, trims its stem, keeps it alive as long as she can. She misses her car, but she can’t afford it. She can’t afford contact lenses anymore. She wears the cheap frames the county pays for. She jokingly calls them her “welder’s glasses.” Her teeth are chipped and broken. Her disability pays for basic dental work, but the last “welfare dentist” she saw pulled six of her teeth at one time, rather than put the extra time or expense into working on them. Now she’s gun shy.
She thinks she is becoming like the old cars in her neighborhood—dented fenders, rust, missing hubcaps. She doesn’t go out very much. One of the side effects of her medications is weight gain, and with only $84 a month, it’s difficult to get clothes that fit. She goes clothes shopping twice a year at Savers or The Salvation Army. She bought a good used winter coat when her church had a clothes drive, but she needs gloves.
She doesn’t have people over very often. Her tiny, one-room efficiency is in the worst part of town and doesn’t even have room for a kitchen table. She dreams of a house with more than one room. With space for books and a bathtub she could actually straighten out her legs in. A kitchen table. A garden of her own. She jokes that the only land she’ll ever own will be six feet deep.
She has no children. She had a cat once. A big yellow tabby called “Jude” from the Beatles song. She’d cradle him like a baby and sing to him. Van Morrison. “You’re as sweet as tupelo honey. You’re an angel of the first degree.”
When her depression hospitalized and finally disabled her, Jude was taken to the Humane Society. The apartment where Amy now lives doesn’t allow pets. She doesn’t go to church very often, she’s embarrassed when the collection plate comes around. But she still believes. If anything her faith is stronger than ever. She thinks the story of Job got it wrong—when you take away everything from someone, sometimes that’s when they feel the most need for God. The Devil should have made Job an NBA star, made him wealthy and wanted, that’s when his faith would have been really tested. She’s afraid she’s forgotten how to pray, but she still has one prayer left, and she says it at each meal and at the end of each day … “Thank you.”
She has her holiday traditions. She watches “It’ A Wonderful Life” and cries at the same parts every year. She reads “A Christmas Carol” with new insights …
“Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Sometimes she feels she’s being tested, but mostly she doesn’t. She writes in her journal, trying to chart her own disease, feeling that maybe, somehow, she’ll come up with something important that will help others with depression somewhere down the line. But it’s hard to do when she’s so tired all the time. She feels she’d give anything just to be held, to be touched, to have her hair stroked.
She can’t afford long distance, but she writes letters to her friend, Susan. Susan calls when she can, but with two kids, a husband and a career in hospital administration it’s difficult. “I know,” Amy says. “It’s OK.”
She doesn’t go to the drop-in center. She functions at a higher level than the people there, but can’t quit make it in the “normal” world, either.
She has a hard time thinking and saying nice things about herself. She doesn’t think she is beautiful. She’s afraid she has “welfare eyes.” But she tries to be a good person. She tries to say something kind to everyone she meets. She tries to see the humor in life. She has hope and dreams. She thanks God every night for his blessings and his love. She thanks him for the gift of her life. She believes her soul is a beautiful rose. She thinks it’s her greatest secret.
At the end of the month, when her disability check comes, Amy buys a rose, and at the end of every day, she says her only prayer.